Every Star Trek series has its Miles O’Brien. Two of them actually had Miles O’Brien, but the “O’Brien Must Suffer” trope didn’t come into existence until he left the starship Enterprise behind and moved over to Deep Space Nine.
“Every year in one or two shows we try to make his life miserable,” said DS9 showrunner Ira Steven Behr, and boy, did they ever succeed.
But it’s not just O’Brien: There’s one character in every Star Trek series who has to take it on the chin just a little more than most, via random injuries, bizarre physical experiences, literal torture, or terribly embarrassing outfits. For these purposes, Captains don’t count: their rank means they’re supposed to take on more than their fair share, whether it’s Kirk finding himself in the same good-chair-gone-bad twice (“Dagger of the Mind,” “Whom Gods Destroy”), Picard getting tortured by Cardassians, or Sisko, Janeway, and Archer having to make some of the most difficult moral decisions in the universe. Just ask Tuvix.
Here, in series order, are the crew members (excluding captains) who suffered the most in the line of duty.
Pavel Chekov - Star Trek: The Original Series
Poor Chekov. He was just an Ensign, a low man on the totem pole who didn’t even show up until season two. While everyone on that crew took some abuse—Sulu almost froze to death, Scotty was framed as a serial killer, McCoy got a bellyful of cordrazine—it was still Chekov, possibly by virtue of Walter Koenig’s wonderful screaming ability, who took it the most.
He writhed in the Agony Booth in “Mirror, Mirror,” then got agonized again in “Day of the Dove.” He went mad in “The Tholian Web,” severely burned his hand just after having his heart broken in “The Way to Eden,” and was shot and killed in “Spectre of the Gun.”
In “The Deadly Years,” he was the only member of the landing party who didn’t start aging, so they punished him with an endless series of medical tests, leading to one of the funniest monologues in Trek history:
“Give us some more blood, Chekov. The needle won't hurt, Chekov. Take off your shirt, Chekov. Roll over, Chekov. Breathe deeply, Chekov. Blood sample, Chekov. Marrow sample, Chekov. Skin sample, Chekov. If I live long enough, I'm going to run out of samples.”
Chekov didn’t fare much better in the movies. He burned his hand again in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, then in The Voyage Home he was injured so badly he had to be taken to a 20th-century hospital. Worst of all, he got the ear slug treatment in The Wrath of Khan, with the bonus of those excruciating moments between his helmet being put back on his head and the creature finally slithering its way into his brain. At least the movies saw him get promoted, unlike one of our other sufferers. (Hi, Harry!)
Will Riker - Star Trek: The Next Generation
Riker wins over his crewmates not just for the physical pain he endured, not just because Jonathan Frakes was the only one to eat real grub worms for "Conspiracy" and then never see the moment air, but also for being given such utterly ridiculous outfits to wear. "Angel One," anyone? How about a game of anbo-jyutsu? Suit up!
As for the serious stuff, there’s plenty. He was duplicated by the transporter and his duplicate –which was still essentially his clone– was abandoned on Nervala IV for eight years. And last we heard, that double is still in a Cardassian labor camp.
He got sucked into Armus’ black slime in “Skin of Evil,” had his arm severed and reattached in “Schisms” after being dragged out of bed for alien experiments in the middle of the night, got electric-shocked in “Symbiosis,” and gruesomely killed in “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Aliens kidnapped and drugged him in “Frame of Mind,” making him question reality itself, and he went undercover in the episode “First Contact” only to get injured and need surgery by Malcorian doctors who weren’t even aware that other species existed.
And then to add insult to injury, he loaned out his body to a Trill symbiont (“The Host”) and was once framed for murder (“A Matter of Perspective”). He doesn’t do well with sharp pointy things: He had to have cactus spikes removed from his back (“Genesis”) and almost died because of a thorn, made even worse by being the catalyst for the recap show “Shades of Gray.” Finally, he was sent to Sickbay courtesy of Spot, Data’s cat. No doubt he forgot to shower Spot with compliments, which might’ve saved him from a scratch or two.
Miles O'Brien - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Spikes in the back? Agony booth? That’s nothing.
We got a hint of what was to come in O’Brien’s TNG days. He told Barclay about having to crawl through a Jefferies tube with 20 Talarian hook spiders, who, in addition to being called Talarian hook spiders, have legs that are half a meter long. And not only was he possessed by a vengeful alien in “Power Play,” he was forced to personally torment his own wife and daughter. Then, in “Rascals,” he was briefly married to a 12-year-old. Yes, Miles’ family was put through the wringer as well, and things only got worse for them all when he transferred to Deep Space Nine.
The writers felt that he was the “everyman” of Star Trek, so putting him in terrible situations would connect the audience more. So what did they do to him?
They gave him a deadly virus in “Armageddon Game,” his wife Keiko was possessed by an evil Pah-wraith (“The Assignment”), his daughter was turned into a feral child (“Time’s Orphan”), and his son had to be carried by Kira Nerys—his boss—after Keiko was injured in a shuttlecraft accident. Awkward!
All of that pales in comparison to coming face-to-face multiple times with his own dead self in “Visionary.” And THAT was pretty tame compared to “Whispers,” where he flees the station after everyone turns against him, then learns they were right and he’s his own imposter! The real O’Brien, who’d been kidnapped, gets to watch another version of himself die... again.
In “Tribunal,” he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit in the worst place you’d want that to happen: Cardassia. Shortly after his arrest he’s stripped naked, strapped down to a chair, and has a tooth removed for identification—and no, they did provide laughing gas.
In “Hard Time,” the most heartbreaking entry of all, he’s forced to live through 20 harrowing years in prison and be haunted by the false memories of having killed his cellmate. While it never happened in real life, he still experienced every excruciating minute of it. O’Brien must suffer.
Harry Kim - Star Trek: Voyager
Unlike Chekov, Harry never got promoted for his troubles, but his similar talent for a good scream was already obvious in the series premiere, “Caretaker.” Sure, everyone got skewered in the stomach (ouch!), but only Harry was unfortunate enough to see it coming… and thus his fate was sealed.
He woke up in a coffin (and had to get back into it to die later) in “Emanations,” had his worst nightmares brought to life by evil Michael McKean in “The Thaw,” and was infected with a retrovirus that led to him almost being devoured by aliens in “Favorite Son.” While everyone else had their delusions to cling to when the Hirogen took over the ship in “The Killing Game,” Harry was beaten up regularly so he’d keep the equipment working. Unsurprisingly, he was the one infected by a member of Species 8472 in “Scorpion,” remaining unhappily conscious while it slowly consumed his body from the inside out. And let’s not forget the 15 miserable years he spent blaming himself for the destruction of Voyager and its crew in “Timeless.” At least that time he got to fix it, and wipe his memory clean.
Trip Tucker - Star Trek: Enterprise
To be fair, Trip shared a lot of his trials and tribulations with his fellow crew members. He and Reed almost died together in “Shuttlepod One,” he and Archer got stuck in an alien web that integrated directly into their nervous systems in “Vox Sola,” and he and Mayweather were brutally interrogated in “Storm Front.”
But he is the only male Star Trek main character to get pregnant (“Unexpected”)! That would mark the first of two times a baby would be conceived with his DNA, without his active participation or even his knowledge. And Mirror Universe Trip was just as mean as everybody else, but had the bonus of nasty radiation scars covering half his face.
Back in the Prime Universe, Trip got injured so badly in “Similitude” he had to be put into a coma, so a clone was created to donate its neural tissues. While Real Trip missed out on making out with T’Pol, Clone Trip had to be murdered so the other one could survive and go to his own funeral. (Just like O’Brien, he got some quality time with his own dead duplicate.) And since he wasn’t quite dead enough in that one, he got killed for real in the series finale.
Sylvia Tilly - Star Trek: Discovery
Tilly gets knocked out by an “energy discharge of unknown origin” in “New Eden,” then infected by a sentient fungus which has to be painfully removed by Stamets in “Point of Light.” But it doesn’t give up. It attacks and envelops her arm in “An Obol for Charon,” and eventually swallows her entirely, giving Tilly the shock of a lifetime when she wakes up inside a gooey cocoon and has to crawl her way out in “Saints of Imperfection.” And that’s all after she thought she was having hallucinations and almost derailed her career by yelling at somebody no one else on the bridge could see.
But here’s the big one: Tilly may very well be the only Star Trek character in history who had to have a hole bored into her skull by an actual —non-medical— drill… without sedation, no less. Singing “Space Oddity” may have calmed her down a little, but it’s no substitute for proper anesthesia.
With Star Trek: Picard, Lower Decks, and other new shows on the Star Trek horizon, we’ll have to be patient to find out who’s getting tormented next. Since Seven of Nine and Jean-Luc Picard have both already been assimilated by the Borg, let’s hope they catch a break this time. But I doubt they will.
Laurie Ulster (she/her) is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She's a writer/editor and was the Supervising Producer on After Trek.
Star Trek: Discovery streams exclusively on CBS All Access in the United States and is distributed concurrently by CBS Studios International on Netflix in 188 countries and in Canada on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and OTT service Crave.